In high school, I spent countless hours lying on my bedroom floor listening to Weezer's sophomore album, Pinkerton, unaware that I was laying the foundation for a broader musical education. My generation's attachment to the band was mainly rooted in an appreciation for its impassioned disillusionment. Little did I know that Pinkerton wasn't just the stuff of Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo's perverse sexual frustration and yellow-fevered longing. Based on the Giacomo Puccini opera, Madama Butterfly, the album is informed by Puccini's text, whose themes mirror Cuomo's own personal disappointments. High school listening parties (of one) came to mind this past Tuesday, when I attended the San Francisco Opera's production of Madama Butterfly, created by Broadway director Harold Prince.
The instability and dysfunction I attributed solely to Cuomo is actually better embodied by B.F. Pinkerton, the opera's resident lowlife. A lieutenant in the US Navy, Pinkerton has rented a home in Nagasaki, with plans to live there with his new bride, Cio-Cio-San, a geisha who more often goes by the nickname "Butterfly." Though Pinkerton has signed a lease to keep his home for the next 999 years, he retains the ability to cancel every month -- as he does with his marriage. Which is convenient, because his ultimate plan is return to America and marry a real American wife.
Unaware of her disposability, 15-year-old Butterfly defies her religion, family, and culture for the chance at the perfect American marriage -- it's not surprising, then, that three years later she's abandoned and alone, still waiting for her husband to come back. ETA? "When the robins nest." Or, more likely -- as others warn her -- never.
Though Butterfly fails to believe it, the marriage is over. When Pinkerton returns to town with his real wife in tow and gets word that Butterfly has had a son, whose blonde hair recalls his deadbeat, he decides to take the child to the United States. This is no comedy, and -- spoiler! -- somebody has to die.
While listening to Weezer's Pinkerton might've prepared me for the emotional turbulence and angst that riddle Madama Butterfly, going to the opera itself requires a whole different mindset. First, there's coming up with a reason to go. Enjoy being decades below the median age, and the accompanying implications of implied maturity? Want to touch elbows with the Bay Area's cultural elite? Duh!
Having paid a cashier in pennies just yesterday, I am by no means a member of said elite -- and am most definitely a novice to the opera -- my previous experience with the form consists of being dragged to The Magic Flute and Cosi fan Tutte as a child. Yet, I've always wanted to participate in a "grown-up" opera experience: Old-school sophistication accompanies the act of "going to the opera," which seems just as much a part of the experience as the performance itself.
But what I encountered on opening night was an unfamiliar distance. What I didn't understand was opera's totally 'other' nature. Having heard sound-bites from Madama Butterfly's arias, I expected distinct songs like in a musical, a story punctuated with moments of intense emotion. And even though the sets and costumes were sumptuous, the drama high and the vocals exquisite, these elements were contained within a mannered theatricality that somehow prevented me from losing myself.
Which begged the question: Is an appreciation for opera an acquired taste? Do people train themselves to like it? Going to the opera is like going back in time. The formality and conventions of the form -- the exaggerated gesturality and goofy comedy -- are representative of a ritualistic school of theatricality. For me, these seemed to undo, rather than heighten, the raw emotion.
Outside of the performance, I also found myself grappling with the "orientalism" contained in the text. Some of the more "exotic" gestures used to indicate Japanese culture made me a little uncomfortable; it can also be difficult to indentify with a colonialist mindset, like that embodied by B.F Pinkerton. And while it was hard for me to engage with Madama Butterfly, I often found certain themes emotionally relevant -- guys today, like then, can still be such jerks.
Perhaps seeing Madama Butterfly through the lens of Rivers Cuomo isn't the best way to experience opera, but it lends itself to a better understanding of how the opera is still relevant, its stories and themes continuing to influence modern texts. Weezer's take on heart-breaking half-Japanese girls hasn't taken too many liberties with B.F. Pinkerton's impassioned disillusionment, and it's clear that respect for the source material still runs deep.
Madama Butterfly runs through November 17, 2010 at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. For tickets and information visit http://sfopera.com/.